blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1

Introducing Six Video Essays
curated by John Bresland

    On the Origin of the Video Essay
            John Bresland

            John Bresland
    The Wren  
            Jessica Bardsley & Penny Lane
    Blobsquatch: In the Expanded Field  
            Carl Diehl
            Marilyn Freeman
            Claudia Rankine & John Lucas
    Notes on Liberty  
            John Scott

The only literary form that can be precisely defined is a dead literary form. Still, it would be comforting to think that the video essay slotted a little more neatly into some genre. If, say, we could call these language-driven visual meditations “nonfiction with pictures we could all log off and get on with our lives. Problem is, that slot’s already been taken—the documentary—and it’s a crowded one.

In any case, the works we’re featuring here are less self-assured than docs. Video essays certainly do engage with fact, but like Chris Marker’s great film essay, Sans Soleil (1982), the clear signposts of nonfiction—facts and reflection in pursuit of some deeper truth—can be enacted within a fictional narrative. And as anybody who watches Oprah can tell you, if you mix fiction with nonfiction, then it becomes fiction—right? Except when it doesn’t. Sans Soleil is an essay, and so, to our way of thinking, is Carl Diehl’s Blobsquatch

One aspect of the video essay that seems unambiguous is that it draws power from documentary tropes, and usually ends up subverting them. Prose poet Claudia Rankine, in a collaboration with filmmaker John Lucas, works in a visual form familiar to anyone who watches sports: the instant replay. The point of the replay being, of course, to make truth visible. Which is exactly what Rankine and Lucas pull off in Zidane, but in a way you’ll never see on ESPN. And in The Wren, a work of and about poetry, Penny Lane and Jessica Bardsley do away with the documentary tendency to illustrate language with image, or vice versa, by using language as image.  

If the essay has been, for thousands of years, a means for writers to figure something out on the page, the video essay is that, too, on the screen. These works can be short and songlike—John Bresland’s object essay, Mangoes, about his visceral fear of the BabyBjörn® comes to mind. Or they can take their time, turning gradually inward as Marilyn Freeman explores her own Catholic consciousness in Baptism, a memoir of stunning visual and aural beauty that borrows from the structure of the Seven Holy Sacraments.

Regardless of runtime, the video essay requires a story. That story may take the form of a narrative, a sequence of events, or it may be a meditation in which “the story” is really the tension generated—to paraphrase essayist Phillip Lopate—by an author working through some mental knot. Notes on Liberty, John Scott’s video essay, combines those two modes, meditation and narrative, to great effect.

We believe that what unites the video essay form is that it places equal literary emphasis on language and image and sound. That is to say, the image does not exist merely to illustrate the text; the text does not merely illustrate the image; and so on. Instead, we believe that in all of these works, there is a degree of distance between what is said and what is shown and what is heard, and within that distance, the audience is allowed its own ample share of imaginative space.  

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